Just after midnight, on New Year's Day, Debbie Cook, a former high-ranking official in the Church of Scientology and still, by her account, a member in good standing, sent an email to 12,000 people. The long message, full of Scientology jargon and citations of the writings of founder L. Ron Hubbard, was a shot across the bow of the group's current leader, David Miscavige.
A week later, longtime Scientology watchers are still parsing Cook's allegations, and debating the effect her message will have on members of the insular group, whose critics call it a cult. Cook's email came just after the end of a long year for defenders of Scientology. 2011 saw the publication of Lawrence Wright's "The Apostate," an exhaustive piece for The New Yorker that chronicled the departure of filmmaker Paul Haggis from the church, amid extensive concerns about alleged abuse of group members. That followed years of coverage by reporters from the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, trying to explain the workings of a secretive religion. And Cook's email was sent just a few weeks after a massive investigation into the financial dealings of the church by the Tampa Bay Times, which reported spending on lavish construction projects even as church staff "hounded" individual members to buy scriptural texts and participate in auditing courses to raise more cash for the organization.
The email from Debbie Cook added a lot of fuel to that fire.
Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega has annotated the text of Cook's lengthy missive, explaining how she tried to appeal to fellow believers in the organization's teachings even as she condemned the focus on raising funds aggressively from members, and the construction of lavish new buildings around the country, apparently to please Miscavige, the group's leader, who is portrayed as a malevolent, physically abusive, and mercurial presence by critics and pieces like Wright's.
The church leaders have built up $1 billion in cash reserves, Cook says, and have not paid that back out to members, as seemingly dictated by the writings of Hubbard. That figure has been "one of the most-talked about things in her e-mail," Ortega writes. "Can Scientology really have so much at its disposal?"
Just a little more than a month ago, the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) published its latest blockbuster expose of the church, focusing on how much Scientology has become about fundraising. Journalists Joe Childs and Tom Tobin provided these eye-opening numbers:
"Scientology rings up astonishing sums: $100 million a year just from services sold in Clearwater, a minimum of $250 million since 2006 for the International Association of Scientologists, tens of millions for new church buildings called Ideal Orgs, and untold millions more from selling new volumes of church scripture."
Our own sources suggest that the St. Pete Times may actually have been conservative in its estimates. Revenue for services at Flag over the last six years has averaged $138 million a year, we're told, and The Basics -- a republication of key Hubbard books which was launched in 2007 -- has brought in hundreds of millions more.
The email also contains an ironic reference to Cook's own time in one of the detention centers used for executives who have angered Miscavige. (The church, in response to Haggis' piece and others, dismissed the reports of Scientology defectors about beatings and verbal abuse in those detention centers as fabrications.)
From Cook's email, in which she refers to other church officials who have seemingly disappeared:
Well, after that I got to spend some quality time with Heber, Ray Mithoff, Norman Starkey, Guillaume, as well as the entirety of International Management at the time, who were all off post and doing very long and harsh ethics programs. These have gone on for years and to the only result of that they are still off post. There is no denying that these top executives have all gradually disappeared from the scene. You don't see them at the big events anymore or on the ship at Maiden Voyage.
Cook is being "extremely cheeky," Ortega writes. The Voice reported this week that Cook was sent to "The Hole" in 2007, and underwent a grueling hazing process in which she was ordered to confess to "homosexual tendencies" and slapped across the face.
The response from the Church of Scientology has been to dismiss Debbie Cook as a disgruntled former member. That's par for the course, as the organization's responses to criticism usually go, writes Janet Reitman for The Daily Beast. Reitman authored the 1995 Rolling Stone exposé, and the book Inside Scientology.
Scientology's response to Cook's allegations has been to write her off as yet one more “disgruntled defector” who was never the insider she claims, according to spokeswoman Karin Pouw. This, Scientology's standard response, is part of an overall policy to discredit critics, known as “dead agenting.” This same policy has been applied to reporters for decades. Coupled with an even harsher policy of harassment, known as Fair Game, it has dissuaded many from investigating the church.
The group's workings will get harder to keep secret as more credible dissenting voices — including still avowed believer in L. Ron Hubbard's teachings — continue to come forward declaring that the current leaders of Scientology are doing their own followers wrong.